Void the Entry: IRREVERSIBLE

“Take that in your face.” Now I’m through with you.”
Thus spits a vicious rapist, gloating over the battered body of Alex (Monica Bellucci), the young woman he’s just brutally attacked before our eyes in a sickening seven-minute single take. And of course it’s writer-director Noé speaking as well, addressing the audience he’s just dared to endure the unendurable. His is a cinema of ordeal, daring us to walk out, to look away, to react, denounce, boycott, picket, whatever. The sensory assault begins with the first frame of the opening titles, and continues to the retina-blasting, eardrum-pounding coda 95 minutes later: not since Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria has a film seemed so hell-bent on scourging our cinemagoing faculties.

But it’s Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) that Noé quotes with his nauseating first shot, as his camera swoops and prowls all over the external surface of a building, tracing demented arcs as though mounted on the back of a winged insect – a fly attracted by sweat and shit, perhaps. We first visit a pair of middle-aged slobs chewing the fat as they lie on a scuzzy bed in a grotty room (“Time destroys all things,” sighs one), then we zoom down to the street, and then into a gay S+M bar called The Rectum, where we see two men being escorted out by police: Pierre (Albert Dupontel) under arrest, Marcus (Vincent Cassel) semi-conscious on a stretcher.

What follows is, in fact, what has gone before: the film borrows the structure of Memento, with each sequence a step back in time. So we see Pierre and Marcus – respectively the former and current boyfriends of Alex – in a frenzied chase through the bowels of The Rectum in search of a certain notorious habituée. It’s a quest that ends such in a shockingly violent fashion that it’s likely to sparks the first (of several) waves of audience walk-outs – although many censor boards will probably apply the scissors to this scene, which far exceeds anything in the oft-trimmed face-pummelling sequence of Fight Club.

But no-one can say they haven’t been warned of Irreversible’s content. At Edinburgh, a printed sign posted outside the various screenings read “Contains unremitting graphic scenes of extreme violence.” And to walk out at the rape scene – or the horrifying brutality that follows – does a serious disservice to Bellucci the actress and Alex the character: we only actually get to know her after her dehumanising assault; a fact which can and should be debated over at length.

Is the problem that the revenge attack and the ensuing rape scene are too horrific? Can a rape scene be anything but horrific? Rape and violence happen in real life – shouldn’t they, therefore, be shown on film, in all their awfulness? Would a sanitised, downplayed version be any less offensive? Or is the problem that this stunningly serious subject is handled within what is, admittedly, a gimmicky format?

To be fair to Noé’s detractors, he seems all too gleeful about putting his actors, characters and audience through his film – just like Darren Aronofsky in his similarly gruelling (though much less explicit) Requiem For A Dream. But Irreversible is an undeniably powerful experience – it makes nearly all this year’s other releases seem trivially ineffectual in comparison.

There’s much to be said for operating so audaciously at, and beyond, the accepted limits of cinema even if this pushing-back of boundaries does have, in Noé;s case, a distinctly gratuitous feel. There’s something cheap, for instance, about having Alex discovering she’s probably pregnant mere hours before the assault – and it doesn’t help that Noe rams home his various messages so repeatedly. He shows us the poster above Alex and Marcus’s bed: 2001 A Space Odyssey, complete with tag-line “The Ultimate Trip”, not once but three times, and we get that “Time destroys all things” motto at the end, just in case we’ve forgotten the moral of the piece.

But Noé does do some remarkable things with time in Irreversible, which is almost entirely composed of very long takes including the rape sequence, where time really does seem to stand still as Alex squeals and screams for help, reaching out her hand towards the camera: to the director and/or the audience. And, like Memento, this is also a film about memory: its amazing how many reviewers seem to think that Marcus, not Pierre, is the one who actually carries out the Rectum-club revenge attack – the two men’s motivations are, in fact, significantly different.

And by gradually making each sequence more orthodox in its presentation, Noé makes the earlier, more distorted moments seem like fragments of a very bad dream. Irreversible is, quite deliberately, a trip into hell – a journey into dangerous, lethal zones of experience. Alex goes down steps into the underpass where she’s raped, and her two male avengers enter explicitly infernal regions when they penetrate the Rectum. Irreversible could just as well have been called Enter the Void – reportedly the title of Noé’s next film. Many people will, instinctively, shrink back and seek safer cinematic territory. But anyone interested in what film can do after over a century of existence and what the next century may bring can scarcely afford to turn down the invitation.

Neil Young
August 18
th, 2002